Budding aviators seek a private pilot's license for a variety of reasons, ranging from wanting to shave time off of a long commute to needing to fly for agricultural reasons or merely desiring to soar with the eagles. Some get their private pilot license as a stepping stone to a commercial airline license that can bring an annual salary in the six figures, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. While different states have different license requirements, you can expect a few specific steps in the process regardless where you live.
Meet License Standards
Before you go through the financial expense and time necessary to get a private pilot's license, be sure that you are legally able to be licensed. States typically require at least a Third Class Medical Certificate from an FAA-certified Aviation Medical Examiner as proof that you are fit to fly. You will complete a short medical questionnaire and undergo a physical examination. You must have at least 20/40 vision with or without correction at near and far ranges, must not be color blind, must be able to hear conversationally at least 6 feet away with both ears or with assistance, and have no physical condition that causes vertigo, problems speaking or equilibrium problems. If you have high blood pressure, you must also undergo a cardiovascular exam. You must also be able to speak English well enough to communicate with air traffic controllers. In addition, you must be at least 16 years old to begin the process although you can begin studying sooner.
Hit the Books
Expect considerable time with your nose in a book or a computer-based training module before you ever enter the cockpit. Classroom ground training time will vary by the school, but typically takes from as little as three weeks to as many as 12 or more weeks. Flight schools integrate classroom training into their curriculum since you must have a certificate of completion to take the FAA Recreational Pilot and Private Pilot Knowledge and Practical Tests. A March 2012 article on Bloomberg reports that a Cessna online training course cost $400, while other, in-class flight schools charge differing amounts based on classroom time and other factors. The written knowledge test costs $150 as of publication, not including test preparation materials. This test contains 60 questions and you have 2 hours and 30 minutes to complete it. It covers the wide range of topics included in your FAA manual, including preflight inspection, weather, instrumentation, communications and other critical flight concepts. Online and print sample exams are available to assist you in your study beyond your normal classroom time.
Serve your Time
You will next need to spend a significant amount of time demonstrating your ability to fly to your flight instructor. You are required to complete a minimum of 40 hours flying. Of these, 20 must be with your instructor as your co-pilot watching every move and training as you go and at least 10 hours solo. While these are the minimum standards, plan to spend even more time -- 60 to 70 hours, on average -- getting comfortable with flying and learning the idiosyncrasies of the aircraft so that you are comfortable when you take your final exam. During your flying time and in the continuing classroom time with your instructor you will further learn about topics such as weather, aerodynamics, aircraft operations and relevant flight regulations.
Pass the Test
Once your flight instructor deems you ready to finalize your license, and within 24 months of passing your required written exams, you will take the Recreational Pilot and Private Pilot Practical Test with either an FAA employee or an approved testing provider. This test is the flying equivalent of your driver's exam. Your instructor should have trained you on the Recreational Pilot or Private Pilot Practical Test Standards which outline everything you must do in this exam. Once you pass this exam and submit your licensing paperwork, you will be certified to fly up to 18,000 feet with unlimited passengers within the regulations of the specific aircraft you fly. Flight school exam prices vary depending on location, the materials you receive and other factors. At the time of publication, for example, Avian Flight Center charged $350 plus the price of using the aircraft, while Sun State Aviation charged $460 but built the required testing flight time into the whole licensing bundle. Airplane rental is a significant portion of your overall license expense. Consult with your airport or flight school for rental and fuel prices.
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: 53-2011 Airline Pilots, Copilots, and Flight Engineers
- Federal Aviation Administration: Find an Aviation Medical Examiner (AME)
- Oregon State University: Getting Your Private Pilot License
- Airaffair.com: How to Become an Airplane Pilot
- Bloomberg: The Real Cost of Becoming a Private Pilot
- Federal Aviation Administration: Recreational Pilot and Private Pilot Knowledge Tests
- Federal Aviation Administration: Recreational Pilot and Private Pilot Practical Tests
- Federal Aviation Administration:: Recreational Pilot and Private Pilot Knowledge Test Guide